Reading Piketty at the Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson has always had a penchant for the past.  Ever since The Royal Tenenbaums, his movies have increasingly drifted into a historical aesthetic, from the shabby (The Tenenbaums’ vaguely 70s-esque New York) to the quaint (the warm agrarian hues of 1960s New England in Moonrise Kingdom).  Few critics have missed the fact that his newest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, amps up all things Anderson to the extreme.  It is cute, fussily pristine, ornately detailed, and even more deeply wedded to a time and place—a screwball comedy in the made-up European nation of Zubrowka, a seeming nod to Freedonia in the 1933 Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup.  Indeed, Grand Budapest harks back to a beautiful old Europe of the 1930s, one poised for destruction in the pulverizing death machine of fascism and war.

Which brings us to Thomas Piketty, the French economist who has somehow come to dominate political and intellectual debate in the United States—no mean feat. His Capital in the Twenty-first Century is not really a Marxist redux, as Piketty himself embraces a reformist social democratic position that is fairly unexceptional in Western Europe, albeit well to the left for American readers.  But the new Capital has captivated journalists, economists, historians and many others in the US, as it provides a robust theoretical and empirical analysis of a problem that has gnawed at the edges of the American imagination for much of the early twenty-first century, one that Occupy Wall Street articulated in snappy and resonant terms—the growing gap between the 99% and the gilded 1% of the super rich.  With the Supreme Court’s latest assaults on organized labor and healthcare rights, the topic shows no sign of losing its political salience.

Twee enough?
Twee enough?

But what could Piketty, the unlikely rock star economist, and Anderson, the polarizing indie filmmaker, possibly have in common?  More than one might think.  I was reading Capital in the Twenty First Century when I first saw Anderson’s new film, and I could not stop thinking of Piketty’s historical analysis while watching the lavish and bittersweet world of Grand Budapest.  In this most unusual film, a Middle Eastern teenager by the name of Zero scores a job as lobby boy at the gorgeous hotel, where M. Gustave presides with great panache and unabashed libertinism as the concierge.  This is a Europe of monied riches, old families, and glorious artisanal chocolate.  It is a place where the elite cavort and Gustave, Zero, and others wait on their every wish.  It is also a world on the precipice, as a looming Fascist menace (basically the Nazis) is about to roll in and crush any and all resistance.  Years later, Communism arrives with its low-rent aesthetic and regrettable despising of luxury.

In short, Anderson is depicting the old world that Piketty analyzes in his book, the one that is swept away in an orgy of destruction that essentially wipes out much of the wealth on the books (in Europe, at least).  At the risk of grossly misrepresenting the complex argument of Piketty’s mammoth book, he has two key points to make: one, that the growth of return on capital investment tends to be greater than the growth of wages.  All things being equal, as economists love to say, the advantage of inherited wealth and investment simply grows faster and compounds itself, as wages tend not to increase as quickly, except in times of rapid economic growth.  This has been the case for most of human history, as Piketty convincingly shows, with the result being the landed aristocracies and relatively fixed classes that predominated almost everywhere until the democratic era of the twentieth century.

It’s a well-known fact among progressive critics that inequality mounted in both the United States and Europe until some point in the early twentieth century—perhaps 1914, when the outbreak of World War I inaugurated decades of depression and war that annihilated a great deal of wealth, or 1929, when the stock market crash reduced inequality by essentially destroying the speculative fortunes of those who earned much of their income from investments.

Thus began a historically unique interlude in which inequality dropped in the US and Europe, incomes for working people grew, and robust economic development lifted many in the proverbial rising tide.  Critics of inequality also know that the gap between the rich and poor (or the rich and everyone else) has grown steadily since the great postwar boom ran out of steam in the early 1970s.  Growth slackened in the years that followed, along with ongoing setbacks for organized labor, increasing automation and outsourcing of jobs, and growing influence of conservative parties that favored tax cuts and deregulation.

More and more historians have come to see the 1945-1972 period of reduced inequality as a “long exception,” in the words of Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore, and Piketty’s analysis supports their thesis.  This brings us to the second prong of his argument: that the long-standing pattern of growing inequality was only stemmed by the vast destruction of wealth that occurred through the two world wars and the Great Depression.  Except for that one historically unique and chaotic period, the rich have always gotten richer and the poor have always gotten poorer, at least relatively speaking.

Which is why I couldn’t stop thinking about Piketty during The Grand Budapest Hotel.  What a different take the film seems to adopt from our French economist hero.  While some have complained that the film is just another twee, cutesy confection from Anderson, it also possesses a deeper emotional gravity than many of his films.  In some ways it’s Anderson’s Inglourious Basterds.  It engages with perhaps the most grotesquely tragic period in human history in a quintessentially Andersonian manner—with a sense of humor and joie de vivre—but one cannot escape the tinge of sadness in the film.  Due to a clever frame-within-a-frame structure, it recounts the story of Zero and Gustave through Zero’s achingly nostalgic recollections of his youth, as an old man in the 1960s, speaking to a traveling writer visiting the dingy hotel after the Communists took over, and again retold by that writer in a famous memoir.


Through these nested retellings, Anderson is able to put space between us and the tale he spins—a distancing maneuver that reminds of how imperfectly remembered and told all stories are.  We see a long-lost world, a traditional society where great care was taken in service, as Gustave shows in how he seriously he takes his job as concierge, as well as craft, from the extravagant décor of the hotel to the beloved chocolates of Mendl’s, the small nation’s premier patisserie.  Anderson is notorious for his obsessive attention to detail as a filmmaker, to the extent that some have griped that his films are little more than toy models or dollhouses.  But his admiration for craft comes through loud and clear, and the film conveys a wistful regret for the annihilation of the world where Gustave could thrive—as a servant, yes, but as a passionate practitioner who had command over his work, and made the best of the unequal society in which he lived.  Old Zubrowka left room for a flamboyant concierge or penniless immigrant lobby boy to navigate the domain of the elite and even inherit a great fortune.

But that world was fading fast, as Zero noted toward the end of the film.  Gustave was a sort of living relic: “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it—but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!”

grand budapest old zero moustafa

In a sense, then, Gustave was a throwback to an even older, even more long-gone world—a world where old-fashioned values of decorum, deference, and service dominated, quite in contrast to both the iron-fisted brutality of the Fascists and the brittle dogmatism of the Communists who followed them.  As Zero suggests, that world may have already been over before the Nazi tanks rolled in, but it was definitely gone by the time Zero tells his story in 1968 to a young writer played by Jude Law.  This is a Brezhnevian world of stagnation, colorless and flat, where the Grand Budapest is allowed to survive, albeit in ragged form, because Zero is able to negotiate an arrangement with the commissars.  The “new” Grand Budapest rather evokes the dingy New York of The Royal Tenenbaums, but it represents not Royal’s fun, anarchic urban scene but the sad fate of an old tradition that has been allowed to limp along, before completely lapsing into oblivion.

The true Anderson?
The true Anderson?

In some ways, Anderson’s film is simply about the pain of nostalgia—what literature scholar Svetlana Boym described as a “longing for a home that no longer exists or never existed” in her wonderful book on postcommunist Eastern Europe, The Future of Nostalgia.  “We were happy here, for a little while,” Zero muses.  But I would suggest that The Grand Budapest Hotel has a political and historical valence—one that might even be surprisingly conservative.  Anderson almost reminds one of A Confederacy of Dunces’ unforgettable protagonist Ignatius Reilly, a self-made medievalist who railed against the debasement of modern democracy and consumer culture, who treasured the “theology and geometry” of an age so remote that it barely makes sense to modern sensibilities.  That seems to be Anderson’s implicit position in Grand Budapest, in a striking way—that a gorgeous and humane civilization was destroyed by the rampaging forces of modernity, whether they wear a Fascist, Communist, or consumerist face.

It is hard to forget that the looming conflict that Anderson depicts in his film is precisely the one that Piketty sees as leveling (admittedly, quite inadvertently) the economic landscape in the United States and Europe.  If he is right in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, it took a horrific nightmare of worldwide violence to reduce the privileges of the privileged.  One hopes humanity never sees anything approaching the horrors of Buchenwald, Dresden or Hiroshima again; yet Piketty leaves us with the disquieting thought that war and depression were the only forces that, historically, have ever curbed the increasing power of wealth within capitalism, even for a fleeting moment.  The brief interlude of broadly shared prosperity in the western world between 1945 and 1972 might have been, as Cowie and Salvatore suggest, an anomaly and nothing more.

Piketty, of course, has been faulted for leaving politics out of his story.  He has had less to say about the power of popular movements, notably the labor movement and social-democratic parties, to alter this very balance of power, which was arguably a greater factor than the Blitzkrieg in changing the distribution of wealth throughout the West in the mid-twentieth century.  The historic defeat of labor in the 1970s and 1980s, many scholars argue, had a great deal to do with the subsequent reallocation of wealth to the elite of the elite through tax policies that favor inherited wealth and investment earnings over wages.

The bad times never felt so good
The bad times never felt so good

Whatever the correct historical diagnosis of growing inequality might be, we find in Anderson’s film a moving and peculiar portrayal of a Europe on the eve of destruction.  It is unmistakable that the Communist Eastern Europe of 1960s Zubrowka is a diminished version of its formerly rich and colorful self in the 1930s.  And Zero remembers his hero and mentor Gustave as an exemplar of the values of a bygone age.  Gustave is, of course, a classic roguish male of the sort Anderson can’t resist—see also, Royal Tenenbaum, Dignan, the Fantastic Mister Fox, Steve Zissou, etc.  But he also evinces a deeply compassionate nature (not to mention an ambiguous sexuality) that most of Anderson’s other heroes do not necessarily share.

In perhaps the film’s most resonant and memorable line, Gustave rhapsodizes about the horrors that undoubtedly await him and the rest of Europe, even as he clings to a classier, more cavalier past:

You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant… oh, fuck it.

Ultimately, it is difficult to disentangle Anderson’s own nostalgia from that of his characters. The story of the Grand Budapest is first and foremost Zero’s bittersweet reminiscence of his 1930s youth, refracted through the romantic sensibility of the author who jotted it all down–a narrative trick that is itself a neat meditation on the way raw experience becomes history and, eventually, myth.  But the film also smacks of Anderson’s own retreat into history. It feels as if he’s escaped into a cinematic age when extravagance and artifice were accepted, or even expected—rather like a novelist who adopts the elaborate and ornate prose of a Dickens or Dostoevsky to protest against the spare, compact style of much contemporary fiction.  Perhaps this is the true root of the director’s infatuation with 1930s film spectacle: a stubborn rejoinder to his critics, who complain that his films have become too stylized and too precious.

Yet The Grand Budapest Hotel also offers a glimpse into a disappeared world, a fanciful old Europe before the democratizing forces of the twentieth century fully took hold—which Anderson presents gently and sympathetically, in his trademark storybook style.  Perhaps it was a moment when the last “faint glimmers of civilization” shone before humanity was shunted off into the slaughterhouse of war and genocide, as the director suggests.  If Piketty is right, though, about the inexorable trends of capitalism, that world may not be gone for long. Indeed, we may all soon be lobby boys at the Grand Budapest.